Katherine Paterson, . . Clarion, $15 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-618-24744-8

Few authors explore the theme of what defines a family with more compassion and sensitivity than Paterson (The Great Gilly Hopkins; Flip-Flop Girl), as she demonstrates once again in this contemporary novel set in rural Vermont. Eleven-year-old Angel Morgan, despite her youth, is the head of her family. With a father in jail for robbery and murder, and Verna, her mother, too preoccupied with herself to care for anyone else (she once "forgot" her children in an all-night diner), Angel looks out for her seven-year-old brother. She keeps a house key around her neck and taxi money in her sock, "just in case." Before long, Verna proves Angel's fears well founded, when she drops the children off at their great-grandmother's house and leaves in the night. Paterson enters Angel's consciousness through a third-person narrative, revealing, for example, how the girl rationalizes Verna's erratic behavior ("How could anyone expect her to know about being a good mother? She couldn't remember having a mother of her own") as well as the way Grandma's (as they call her) ramshackle house transforms into a welcoming haven with a nearby library and a pasture with a view of the night sky. At the novel's center is Angel's blossoming friendship with a mysterious "star man" whom Grandma calls "Santy Claus." He leaves food and chopped wood at the door, and introduces the heroine to galaxies beyond their own. Angel's intelligence and abiding trust in the direst of situations will convince readers that, despite the unresolved ending, she will rise above her circumstances. Ages 10-13. (Sept.)